LEED Green Construction – What Is It and Is It Right For Your School?

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters, Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education, Public Education
DATE: Feb 21, 2023

As schools plan for new construction or renovation projects on campus, or for upgrades to existing air, energy, water, or other systems in school buildings, one thing schools should consider is whether LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Certification is right for them.  LEED, which was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), is the most extensively used green building rating system in the world.  Since USGBC created the 1.0 version of LEED in 1998, thousands of K-12 schools across the country have become LEED-green schools.

So what is a LEED green school?  Well, a LEED green school is one that has earned a LEED Certification.  There are two options for LEED Certification for K-12 schools, including:

  1. LEED for Building Design and Construction: Schools’ construction or renovation of buildings dedicated to K-12 learning
  2. LEED for Operations and Maintenance: Schools day-to-day operation of existing buildings dedicated to K-12 learning

To achieve LEED Certification in one of these areas, a K-12 school, in consultation with its project team, first assesses its energy, efficiency, and sustainability goals and then develops and applies strategies to achieve those goals in the following LEED categories:

  • Integrative Thinking: Promotes reaching across disciplines to incorporate diverse team members during the pre-design period
  • Energy: Focuses on reducing energy demand through efficiency, then rewards renewable energy
  • Water: Addresses indoor use, outdoor use, specialized uses, and whole-building-level water metering
  • Materials and Waste: Encourages using sustainable building materials and reducing waste and includes a special focus on usage, life-cycle, and transparency
  • Location and Transportation: Includes an emphasis on advanced performance metrics to reward projects within relatively dense areas, near diverse uses, with access to a variety of transportation options, or on sites with development constraints
  • Sustainable Sites: Rewards decisions about the environment surrounding the building, and emphasizes the vital relationships among buildings, ecosystems, and ecosystem services
  • Health and Human Experience: Focuses on providing high-quality indoor environments that enhance productivity, decrease absenteeism and improve the building’s value
  • Innovation: Recognizes innovative building features and sustainable building practices and strategies
  • Regional Impacts: Encourages project teams to focus on their local environmental priorities

Applying strategies in the above LEED categories earns the project points, and the number of points the project earns determines whether the project achieves LEED Certification and, if so, the LEED Certification rating level (i.e., Platinum, Gold, Silver, or Certified).

The USGBC, USGBC’s Center for Green Schools, and many other organizations and agencies promote the many benefits of being a LEED green school, including:

  • Reducing environmental impacts and associated costs;
  • Improving indoor air quality, including reducing allergens and respiratory irritants that can cause asthma and respiratory allergies;
  • Using fewer resources and minimizing waste;
  • Reducing energy and water use, which reduces utility costs;
  • Reducing operating costs;
  • Promoting environmental and sustainability education and literacy for students;
  • Obtaining third-party verification that a project will truly save the school energy, water, and other resources;
  • Increasing daylight in indoor spaces, which can lead to increased productivity among students and employees;
  • Eliminating the use of harmful chemicals in paints and other finishings;
  • Reducing pollution and harmful emissions and improving outdoor air quality;
  • Engaging in construction, renovation, and/or upgrades in a manner consistent with the school’s mission, philosophy, and core values;
  • Sending a message to the community that the school is dedicated to sustainability and reducing harmful environmental impacts, which can promote positive public relations; and
  • Potentially qualifying for tax or other incentives related to various green elements that may be included in the project.

Possible drawbacks of LEED Certification include that it may lengthen the planning stages and cost of the project, and there are fees associated with just the LEED registration and certification alone.

Another consideration for California private schools that are analyzing whether LEED is right for them is that California has its own green building standards code that applies to the construction of new buildings or portions of new buildings and additions and alterations to existing buildings in the state.  This green building standards code commonly referred to as “CalGreen” (Part 11 of Title 24 of the California Code of Regulations), has similar goals and benefits to those of LEED, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions from buildings, promoting environmentally responsible, cost-effective, and healthier places to live and work, and reducing energy and water consumption.  California private schools, therefore, should consider whether their sustainability, environmental, energy, and other green building goals can be met through CalGreen alone, or whether the additional step of LEED Certification is right for them.

The benefits of being a LEED green school can be significant, and carefully considering whether this step is right for your school is recommended whenever construction, renovation, or system upgrades are on the horizon.

LCW Partner, Christopher Fallon, is a LEED Green Associate, meaning he has been accredited by Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI) as a professional with extensive knowledge of green building practices, construction, and operations.  Chris is available to provide advice and counsel to schools contemplating LEED Certification.

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